The terms "soft launch" and "hard launch" have started to make their ways back into start-up vocabulary, particularly as they pertain to PR strategy, recently.
For those that aren't familiar, a "soft launch" is when a product is made available with little to no fanfare, while a "hard launch" is when the company pulls out all of the stops to make sure everyone knows a new product has come to market. A soft launch allows the company to get feedback on the new feature or product as well as get an understanding of organic growth without putting a lot of marketing dollars behind the endeavor. With a soft launch, the company isn't trying to get much public attention or press coverage in this scenario so expectations tend to be lower. On the other hand, a hard launch usually is set in place for larger announcements and requires more marketing dollars and a stronger coordination between product, marketing and PR.
While these two types of launches mostly exist for companies from a product and marketing perspective, PR is an entirely different beast. From a PR perspective, a launch is a launch, whether it is "soft" or "hard." Once any information is publicly available, it is no longer considered news to most reporters. You can't ask a reporter to accept an embargo for information that can be found in an app store, on LinkedIn, social media channels or anywhere on the interwebs.
PR can be incredibly important to the launching of a company or product. But it shouldn't be the one and only lever pulled for launch. And your launch timing and strategy should rarely hinge on PR. Rather, companies need to look at their business objectives to determine how a launch should work for them: Are you simply looking for user growth? Are you concerned about scalability? Is your product or feature truly revolutionary?
Depending on your answers to these and other questions, your launch approach will be very different and sometimes PR may just not be the answer. And that's okay.
Words you thought you'd never hear from a PR professional: Sometimes PR isn't the answer. But it's true.
Executed properly, a communications program can serve as a catalyst for a variety of business objectives. But it should not stand alone or be a company's only avenue to success. There are too many startups that hire PR firms too quickly, way before they truly need the on-going assistance. Sadly, many hire big agencies with big budget requirements simply because they think that will prove to reporters and potential investors that they’ve hit the big time. Instead, they are draining their cash.
Whether a company is consumer-facing or focused on business-to-business transactions, its success revolves around its customers. Without customers, you have no company. Throughout your company’s history and particularly early on, you need to devote your attention to the product and your customer base. The PR will come over time.
PR is a complementary component of any successful marketing and customer acquisition campaign. It should not be a stand alone program on which you spend all of your effort or budget, especially if you are early on in your founding. Your key objective should be acquiring customers.
For example, if you haven’t officially launched your company -- that means your website and social media channels aren’t live or if they are, they don’t share any details of what you are doing and who is involved -- it might be beneficial to have a short-term PR program to help make the announcement. But you should not be spending your entire marketing or customer acquisition budget on an on-going PR engagement -- at least not yet.
Have conversations with various agencies and freelancers about short-term campaigns early on so you understand what they need to be successful on your behalf. Identify company and product milestones that you believe are critical for external parties to hear about. Really look at whether that list warrants full-time PR support or if small engagements will suffice.
Sometimes PR just isn’t the answer.
Stumbled upon an article this morning about a recent video game launch, where a Sony executive chose to blame PR for the backlash from gamers.
“It wasn’t a great PR strategy, because he didn’t have a PR person helping him, and in the end he is an indie developer."
Now, we weren't involved in this launch and aren't video game PR experts but this pointing of fingers and blaming PR (or the lack thereof) for the issues the company and its developer partner are having with their audience just doesn't add up.
We should all learn from this example of how NOT to communicate and work with our partners, launch products (until they are actually ready for primetime), and be held accountable. The blame game isn't smart.
In case you were living under a rock yesterday, you probably already know about the Apple event that happened yesterday in San Francisco. A new iPhone and Apple Watch were announced along with AirPods and a new mobile OS and a few other things. But unlike Apple events from years' past, there were no surprises. At all.
In fact, Mashable published a piece this morning about this exact concern: if Apple can't keep secrets, who can?
So many PR programs still rely heavily on pre-briefings, embargoes and keeping the details of the announcement under wraps until the very last minute, when the press release and blog posts go live along with a flood of press stories all publishing at the exact same time. While this tactic should remain in your PR tool belt, it shouldn't necessarily be the only way you approach garnering coverage around a company announcement or product launch.
We live in a "24/7 breaking news-wins and 'normal' business hours don't apply" world where you can keep very few things a secret for long, particularly if it is connected a well-known brand or public company. We need to rethink how we launch products and share news with reporters and the rest of the world.
Launch events, press releases, blog posts, social media, pre-briefings and embargoes still have their place. But we need to find additional avenues. And many of those approaches will be unique to your company, the industry in which you are a part of, your target audiences and the media that play in your world.
Let's start thinking outside the box.
Guarantees certainly have their place. They provide customers with a sense of comfort around their purchases and choice of vendor. Broken printers get replaced or repaired. Buggy software is updated. Cancelled flights are reimbursed or rescheduled.
But guarantees don’t make sense in PR.
In fact, red flags wave, alarms blare and lights flash when I hear about agencies and PR professionals that guarantee press coverage. That's not PR. That's advertising.
It is important for all players to come into the PR game understanding the difference. PR is also known as earned media. Details, interviews and assets are given to a reporter who then writes and publishes the story from their own point of view in order to share the information they find most relevant to their particular audience. You don’t get to review the article in its entirety prior to publication (although you should most certainly confirm all stats and quotes being used). You don’t get to rewrite their article or headline. If you want to write or edit a piece, you can always author and place a contributed article or advertorial. Those are other complementary channels to consider for your communications program. But that’s another topic for another day.
Even the most well known household brands with the most earth-shattering news could very well get cut out of a news cycle. No one can predict a natural disaster or a political situation that could dominate days of press coverage even though it doesn’t directly touch your industry. In addition, a competitor could steal your thunder by hosting an impromptu press event or a reporter could have sources that leak your news in advance and you need to put your reactive program into effect.
Completing due diligence and creating backup scenarios for your product launch or company announcement can actually only get you so far. You may know when certain industry events are scheduled and when a competitor or a larger brand in your industry may make some news but that doesn’t always give a clear picture of what could end up happening on launch day. There is also the possibility that your target reporters are out of town, on maternity, sick, bogged down with other priorities from their editors or, in some cases, they may just not find the announcement worth covering.
Around all company and product communications, leadership and PR should have a clear communications pathway. PR should provide leadership a clear set of expectations for launch -- messages, strategy, targets, reactions from any pre-briefings/exclusives, etc. -- and keep leadership updated as the program progresses and they receive feedback from reporters.
But know that there are no guarantees in PR.
Unless you were living under a rock, Apple hosted their regular March product event yesterday. The products were straight-forward and there was no “just one more thing…” The event just came and went. Reporters covered the news, some live blogged but most of the news had come out in the weeks prior to the event.
The curious thing is that with so many Apple fanboys out there, particularly in reporting circles, why weren’t more of them publishing critical post-event analysis? They simply broke or reported on the pre-event claims, attended the event, covered the news and moved on with their day.
It could be a variety of reasons (check all that apply).
That era has slowly petered out since Tim Cook took the reins in August 2011. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. But it certainly shows a complete 180 in the product, business and communications strategy from the company’s previous regime.
Just read a great piece from Janko Roettger of Variety on Netflix’s international launch of Season 2 of Daredevil. It isn’t the typical piece you’d expect from Variety because it focused on the behind-the-scenes technological components and complexities of streaming an entire season of a series across the global at once. Not an easy feat.
And Netflix did an amazing job orchestrating not only the actual streaming launch (I personally can’t wait to binge watch next weekend) but also the intimate PR event that resulted in Janko’s piece. People reading his story may not even think about the logistics and intricacies that were put in place by the PR and marketing teams to create that moment.
While only one story is wasn’t your run-of-the-mill launch story. And that’s what really struck me. Netflix took the time to really craft a unique experience for these reporters. One that allowed them to go deep enough into the tech without exposing any proprietary information, deep enough for reporters -- and their readers -- to feel special about their access.
This story is a reminder of what is possible when PR and marketing teams think outside the box for launches. Product launches aren’t what they used to be and not every launch should be cookie-cutter or transactional. What elements can you bring to your launch that provide an experience? Do you have visuals? Do you have experts that can speak to different aspects or viewpoints of the launch?
With all of that said, not every company or launch can or should try to pull off what Netflix did. There is a large element of risk when you bring reporters into a space with special access to unveil something live and in real-time. Something could go wrong or fail. But in Netflix’s case, the risk was worth the reward. And it is something that all PR and marketing teams should evaluate on some degree for future launches.
Welcome to ROAMings, a compilation of thoughts and musings about the PR and media industries. This is an opportunity to discuss the “here and now” of the industry, interesting events or case studies, pivotal moments that affect how we approach PR, etc. It isn’t about brand loyalties or preferences -- and we will not be publishing self-promotional materials or talk about our clients in this setting -- but how those brands, individuals and events are leveraging (or in some cases abandoning) PR.